In his book “Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step,” psychologist and philosopher Edward de Bono states that no matter what happens in a conversation, changing someone’s ideas can only occur when the conversation reaches a threshold of critical thinking.
“Lateral thinking is concerned with breaking out of the concept prisons of old ideas,” the author states. “This leads to changes in attitude and approach; to looking in a different way at things which have always been looked at in the same way. Liberation from old ideas and the stimulation of new ones are twin aspects of lateral thinking.”
de Bono’s book is not aimed directly at sales managers and their teams, but it may as well be. Sales interactions and customers are quite predictable. Salespeople can be predictable, as well. To expect a customer to change their thinking, there needs to be an environment that is less predictable and more thought provoking.
A dearth of critical thinking
What percentage of the prospects that your salespeople call on have a short attention span? On a typical day or week, how often do your salespeople’s conversations achieve a level of critical thinking? We wondered the same thing.
Having surveyed approximately 500 training professionals and individuals in a sales leadership role about the percentage of their salespeople achieving a threshold of critical thinking, the highest number achieved was 20 percent; the lowest level was 5 percent. Currently, the average is 14.5 percent.
That suggests nearly 85 percent of sales conversations do not move the needle forward with an existing or prospective customer. Will an assertive approach that challenges the customer raise this number without being contentious? There’s a better way.
Sales is for thinkers
Recently, The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about John McEnroe, a former No. 1-ranked professional tennis player who won seven Grand Slam singles titles and nine Grand Slam men’s doubles titles. You don’t have to know tennis to know that McEnroe was an accomplished player. He was also somewhat of a volatile or aggressive player. Some say he constantly “challenged the chair” (the umpire of a tennis match). His antics could be defined as epic. However, he was also smarter than most.
As told in the WSJ article, when John was developing as a player, his coach taught him a valuable lesson. He said to look at the court as a chess game and calculate the odds of success and his next moves. If he could do something to improve his odds, he should do it.
Start playing chess
Using this tennis-as-chess approach in a sales call can be invaluable. Customer interactions should be thoughtful, sequential, mindful and highly relevant. Our survey indicates improvement can be made in this area. It is not a matter of how assertive salespeople are, but how intellectually engaging and strategic they can be.
With a bit of preparation, sales reps can calculate with a great deal of accuracy how a conversation with a client will start and end.
Customers (no matter the industry) are highly predictable. Knowing this enables a rep to put the odds in their favor. The salesperson who anticipates what is coming can uncover the customer’s patterns. Customers can be viewed as the person on the other side of the net in a tennis match. Knowing that person’s tendencies allows the rep to stay one step ahead.
A sales call is a game of chess. Reps should think not only about how a call will start and end, but how the prospect will respond to questions, position and recommendations. They should play out the entire sales call just like a chess match. They should not pick up the phone or hop out of the car without the proper amount of forethought and deliberation.
One step ahead
Staying ahead of customers is a key to success. Knowing that a prospective or existing customer will default to their preset memories or biases can be used to your advantage if, and only if, they are engaged at a higher level of conversation. If the bar is raised to make them think differently, reps don’t need to be assertive. Customers who are engaged in critical thinking will reconsider their choices and change their behaviors. They will become more receptive.
Challenging someone can work, engaging someone in critical thinking works better. It might be a matter of pushing or pulling the string.
Charles Brennan is the founder of Brennan Sales Institute, a leading provider of in-house customized advanced sales training programs.